For Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Nearly 100, the Beat Goes On


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Lawrence Ferlinghetti, left, at a poetry reading.

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Nat Farbman/The LIFE Picture Collection, via Getty Images

FERLINGHETTI’S GREATEST POEMS
By Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Edited by Nancy J. Peters.
144 pp. New Directions. $16.95.

ONE DAY WHEN I was about 14 or 15 and wandering the aisles of a bookstore in Southern California, my eyes were drawn to “Endless Life,” a collection of poems by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I grew up in a conservative household in an even more conservative neighborhood, and I doubt I’d had any exposure, up till that point, to Ferlinghetti and his transcontinental, transcendental comrades known as the Beats. All I knew, as I flipped through the book, was that the words were bouncing around the page:

The pennycandystore beyond the El
is where I first
fell in love
with unreality

What is this? I thought. Why is this guy allowed to write that way? To a teenager with an inchoate interest in language, those leaping lines conveyed a swig of freedom:

The world is a beautiful place
to be born into
if you don’t mind happiness
not always being
so very much fun …

I had never bought a book of poetry before — at that age, doing so had never crossed my mind — but I bought “Endless Life,” kick-starting a habit of impulse purchasing that continues to this day. I spent time with it. Ferlinghetti’s “spontaneous” transgressions of punctuation and spacing appealed to a kid who was warming up to the intoxicating provocations of punk rock, and I can’t be alone in having had that response. Unscientific polling over the years has led me to believe that Ferlinghetti (like E. E. Cummings and Charles Bukowski) used to be something of a gateway poet for young people in America, and a residue of nostalgic fondness remains even for those readers who have moved on to ostensibly more sophisticated stuff. (If you’re looking for a contemporary analogy, one can hope that thousands of Rupi Kaur fans will eventually find their way to, say, Louise Glück and Nikky Finney.) Whenever I’m visiting San Francisco, I still make a pilgrimage to City Lights, the North Beach bookstore, founded by Ferlinghetti, that stands as a kind of Plymouth Rock for American poetry and progressive thought.

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But how does Ferlinghetti’s work hold up now? (Ferlinghetti himself has held up well. At press time, he is still alive and nearing his 99th birthday.) As a publisher, a patron of the arts and a free-speech pioneer, he has been rightly celebrated for decades; he played a crucial role in the defense of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” even winning an obscenity case for daring to publish that zeitgeist-capturing incantation.

Yeah, O.K. — but what about his writing? The release of “Ferlinghetti’s Greatest Poems” (I wish New Directions had gone ahead and called it “Ferlinghetti’s Greatest Hits,” like an album full of ear candy by Tom Petty or Elton John) gives us a chance to revisit that question. It’s a complicated one. Do the quicksilver qualities that can make Ferlinghetti’s poetry so captivating to an adolescent undermine our ability to take it seriously with the passing of years? In his more unfortunate moments, as in the poem called “Underwear,” corny humor lands with a clank and you can’t help wincing: “Underwear can really get you in a bind / Negroes often wear / white underwear / which may lead to trouble.”

It seems self-evident that the passing of years has done “Underwear” no favors. At the same time, it would be churlish to deny that Ferlinghetti has given the popular canon many indelible lines. For a while in the 1950s and 1960s, his voice stood out amid a mounting dissident chorus; in these days of hashtagged political resistance, it is not uncommon to come across portions of his stanzas reconstituted as memes on Instagram and Facebook:

I am waiting for my case to come up
and I am waiting
for a rebirth of wonder
and I am waiting for someone
to really discover America
and wail

Based on passages like that, it’s not much of a stretch to put Ferlinghetti in the company of skilled songwriters. He knows how to craft a hook. His lines have an easy, welcoming flow. (In this book, the poems are arranged chronologically and fluidly, as if they were part of an “Abbey Road”-like symphonic collage or a Hollywood highlight reel.) He has a gift for helping you hear what needs to be said, free of impenetrable filters. He is allergic to willful obscurity and “our little literary games,” as he declared in one “Howl”-referencing populist manifesto that he titled, with characteristic directness, “Populist Manifesto No. 1”:

We have seen the best minds of our
generation
destroyed by boredom at poetry
readings.
Poetry isn’t a secret society,
It isn’t a temple either.
Secret words & chants won’t do any
longer.

Returning to Ferlinghetti is ultimately about returning to the romantic associations of the milieu that produced Ferlinghetti, so it makes sense that some of Ferlinghetti’s most plangent stanzas are the ones in which he looks back at the heyday of the Beats, that “rebel band who / rose over the rooftops of / tenement boneyards / intent on making out / And made out of madness / a hundred years of beatitude.” Maybe there’s no way to dissociate Ferlinghetti’s poetry from the nostalgic gauze of various North Beach beatnik tropes — proto-hipsters wearing berets and listening to bebop and smoking French cigarettes, etc. — but what remains intact in the poems (even as their creator approaches a century of living) is the fresh, youthful energy of that moment. The liberating pulse can still be pretty contagious. His high points are the poems that you wish you could listen to in a car, on a long coastal highway, with the windows rolled down — and you certainly can’t say that about Robert Lowell.

Does the occasionally tossed-off imperfection of the poems give them a kind of time-capsuled charm? If you’re willing as a reader to be forgiving, it can be a blast to go back to the way the words bounce. And Ferlinghetti himself can’t resist the pull of the past. In “Plan du Centre de Paris à Vol d’Oiseau,” this is how he remembers it:

yearnings & gropings
fantasies & flame-outs
such endless walking
through the bent streets
such fumbling art
(models drawn with blindfolds)
such highs and sweet inebriations—
I salute you now.

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